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Guilt and Shame

Guilt and shame differ as emotional experiences and in their social functions.

Guilt and shame are two rather different negative emotions that are often confused. Both emotions keep people on the straight and narrow, avoiding socially disapproved thoughts and behaviors. And in both cases, people feel bad about themselves—but that is where the similarity ends.

Guilt is something you can experience alone. It is a feeling that you have done (or even thought) something wrong; it is your sense that you have committed a moral transgression.

In contrast, shame requires other people—a real or imagined audience. Shame—which can be a more intense form of embarrassment—involves the real or imagined condemnation of others for your breaking some social norm. Someone who embezzles money, for example, may feel no guilt for the act, but may feel intense shame when caught, at the thought that others regard him as a criminal.

Naturally, most people experience both shame and guilt from time to time—but the balance between the two can vary quite widely.

Some people appear to have little or no conscience, and are relatively free of feelings of guilt or remorse for even truly heinous acts. Over the decades they have variously been labeled as psychopaths, sociopaths, or more recently as having an antisocial personality disorder.

At the other extreme, people with extremely strong feelings of guilt for even trivial or imaginary moral lapses may be severely depressed, and may even be driven to suicide to punish themselves for their shortcomings. Others may engage in compulsive behaviors from excessive hand washing to endless religious rituals to undo their imagined sins.

In a parallel way, some people are relatively free from shame. If they have a moral compass, and feelings of guilt prevent bad behavior that might otherwise be held in check by shame, then they may do quite well as social nonconformists. Of course, if both shame and guilt are weak, we’re back in the territory of sociopaths.

On the other hand, creativity involves challenging norms—whether those of society-at-large, or of an artistic, scientific, or scholarly community. As such, creative individuals often have weakened feelings of shame, or at least are able and motivated to hold those feelings in check.

Every society contains all kinds of people, so we need to be careful about avoiding cultural stereotypes. Still, beginning in the 1940s with the American anthropologist Ruth Benedict, social scientists have raised the possibility of differences between “shame cultures” and “guilt cultures.”

All cultures manage to get people to internalize their social norms, and also to internalize psychological mechanisms for holding unacceptable thoughts and behaviors in check. Thus, it is argued, some cultures put more emphasis on guilt to regulate behavior, while others put more emphasis on shame.

Cross-cultural psychologists often describe cultures as falling along an individualism-collectivism continuum.

In cultures that are more individualistic, one’s primary responsibility is to oneself. People make their own important life decisions (e.g., what kind of work to do and whom to marry), and have to live with the consequences of their choices. Thus, it is argued, guilt is a key motivator. (I don’t do something wrong because doing it would make me feel bad.)

In cultures that are more collectivist, one’s primary responsibility is to others—one’s family, tribe, religion or other social entity. Important others in their group make key life decisions for the individual (e.g., what kind of work to do and whom to marry) because they have the requisite knowledge and power, and one’s primary responsibility is to the group and to them because of their elevated position within it. Thus, it is argued, shame is a key motivator. (I don’t do something wrong because doing it would make me look bad to my reference group—I would lose face and others would think ill of me.)

In summary, guilt and shame differ in their subjective experience, in their relation to aspects of personality and psychopathology, and in their social and cultural contexts and functions.


Interested readers might want to have a look at my exploration of other concepts—tolerance, acceptance, and understanding—and emotions—envy and jealousy.

Check out my most recent book, The Myth of Race, which debunks common misconceptions, as well as my other books at Amazon. Visit my website at

More from Jefferson M Fish Ph.D.
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